In one month, Alberto Tomba of Italy will be standing in a chute on Calgary's Mount Allan awaiting the start of the Olympic slalom, an event which he now must almost certainly be favored to win. The other racers, no doubt, will have their minds running, plotting strategy or wondering why their shorts had to pick this particular moment to ride up or visualizing themselves being awarded the gold medal. But Tomba, who washed cars at last year's world championships, will be looking down the hill and between his ears will be nothing but rumore bianco, white noise. "I don't think about the competition," Tomba says. "I only go. That's it. And the results, they come."
If there is a method in this, Tomba seems to be its perfect master, airheading his way to six victories and one second-place finish in eight World Cup slalom and giant slalom races this season. "To be a good racer today you must be brainless, or be able to turn off the brain," says former Italian star Erwin Stricker. "For that reason, Tomba will win a lot of races."
Only two months ago, Tomba, a 21-year-old policeman from a suburb of Bologna, was unknown outside Italy and was barely known in it for anything other than his odd name. (Tomba means "grave," as in cemetery plot.) He had never won a single World Cup race before November, and when he finally did win the first race of the season at Sestriere, the Italian fans tried to brighten up that lamentable handle by referring to him as Tomba la Bomba (the Bomb).
Tomba increased his inventory of names and began building his own legend when he crossed the finish line at Sestriere screaming, "Sono una bestia!" (I am a beast!). At least that's how it sounded to spectators lining the course, although it's possible that in all the excitement they got it wrong, and that what Tomba really said was "Sono un pesto!", which, roughly translated, means "I am a green herb sauce!"
Either way, it was clear almost immediately that Tomba was something the World Cup circuit had not seen in a long, long time—a brash and daring racer who wears more on his sleeve than advertising patches. At Madonna di Campiglio, where Tomba won another slalom to remain undefeated after four races, he suddenly blurted out to a startled interviewer, "I am the new messiah of skiing!"
Tomba's ascendance to the loaves-and-fishes level of the sport comes at a very good time. After a decade of dominance by those two madcap blonds Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden and Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland, the World Cup corps has been badly in need of a breath of fresh air.
Both Stenmark and Zurbriggen have been almost ascetic in their devotion to training, off to bed early every night, where they presumably fall asleep counting their virtues. The most controversial thing Zurbriggen ever did was to make pilgrimages to Lourdes to pray, while the dour Stenmark managed to set the World Cup record for most victories, 85, while steadfastly avoiding the press. "Let's face it," says an Italian journalist, "Pirmin's a great skier and a nice guy, but he's just too nice. Stenmark's boring, too; he just doesn't want to talk about it."
Tomba, in dazzling contrast, is the party animal of the ski circuit. He is uncomfortable around puritans like Zurbriggen and Stenmark. "I don't want to become like them," he says. "I'm considered the clown of my team because I cannot be serious for two minutes. I'm afraid if I become more serious I will stop winning. Maybe I will learn not to say bad words in the future, but that is the best to be hoped for. This is my character and I cannot change."
"Tomba takes skiing seriously when he's in the starting gate," says sports agent and friend Marco Fontanesi, "but before and after, he's a different person. On the mountain, Zurbriggen is working at his job. For Alberto it is still fun."
At Val Badia this season, Tomba was having so much fun and was so far ahead in the giant slalom that he began waving at the crowd as he rounded the gates during the race. At the end of his second run that day he pounded himself vigorously on the chest as he crossed the finish line. "I was so happy, I had to congratulate myself," Tomba says.